Photo Credit: Wai Siew, Unsplash.com

Written by Lisa Marie Nelson
December 13, 2019

Yesterday morning I found myself hiking around our hilly yard watching the sky awaken, shading from navy to aqua to pink while our two pups, Anela and Kona, cavorted across the dew-soaked ground. The temperature had cooled enough for our breath to show up as little puffs of grey vapor.

Both dogs romped around in the cold scrub and dirt; one tiny dragon, one medium-sized. My fingers gripped a coffee cup and I exhaled deeply, my breath a geyser in the crisp morning air. I felt an extraordinary sense of gratitude and peace. Despite four hours of sleep, a pee accident on the carpet, my unwashed hair and grubby pajamas, I felt happy (A rather incongruous emotion for a new puppy-parent).

The last time we brought a puppy home was August 2013. At the time I was facing challenges above and beyond puppy training. Having only recently moved to California from Boston, I found myself untethered–emotionally and spiritually. I’d left a job and company that had been my raison d’etre for several years.

I had no California friends, no network, and was struggling to find a sense of purpose. In the past, having the logistical demands of puppy-raising on my plate would have provided a welcome distraction. Instead, I was sinking lower and lower into self-blame, shame, stress, and distress . . .

What I know now is that our relocation and subsequent disconnection fed my intense ennui. I withdrew, blamed (myself and others), shamed (myself and others), and stewed over dozens of what-if scenarios. All while trying to juggle a new puppy, full-time job, and demanding commute.

I felt constant, crushing guilt. My lack of self-awareness at the time made it difficult to decipher the destructive self-narratives swirling in my head. I felt lost. I started and left jobs, desperate to keep my career going one month and then quitting the next, citing my need to be home. I took on the role of wounded martyr, “sacrificing” my career trajectory and desire for financial success, telling myself that my partner’s job mattered more, that I should be home for the puppy, all the while seething with resentment–and, honestly–fear. If I let my guard down, disaster would happen.

I didn’t sleep, eat, exercise, or look after my emotional health so that I could prove I was willing to put myself last. This led, as you might expect, to a fractious relationship with my partner and the inability to handle any slightest hiccup or accident–which, let’s be honest, often defines the puppy raising experience.

I told myself that I’d be happy when the pup was fully trained, walked on her leash like a pro, came when called, or when the house was spotless, I was at my goal weight, or yadda, yadda, yadda. I played the “happy when . . . “ game so often and so well (I’m an overachiever, after all), I thought about little else for several months. If you’re thinking it sounds exhausting, I assure you, it was.

Fast forward six years. Kona’s almost seven years old, built like a tank, happy as a clam, and apparently unaffected by my ennui-soaked puppy rearing. We live in a larger house, near a park, with an expansive yard. I’d spent the last 24 months focusing on self-development, actualization, and expression. I felt I’d found my stride. Or at least, I was closer than I’d been in years. We’d lost our beloved dog, Jordan, at the end of July and were ready to be a family of four again.

Three weeks ago we brought home a new puppy: Anela. I was curious how my work on self-awareness and mindfulness would impact the stressful, round-the-clock nature of raising Anela. I braced myself for the onslaught of self-flagellation, tension, and inevitable pull to become our family’s sacrificial lamb.

Do I get frustrated? Yes. Am I tired? God, yes. Am I sliding down the slippery slope of self-shaming behavior like last time? Thankfully, no. I stopped “shoulding” on myself. I stopped this sneakily destructive practice when I realized that every time I told myself “should” what I actually meant was: be what other people want you to be, try to be perfect so you can escape their judgement.

I’m keenly aware of when I start using guilt as a self-directed weapon. I avoid trying to control outcomes. I monitor my self-talk. I seek out help when my self-coaching isn’t working. Taken together, this is what I refer to as my consciousness shift:

no longer feeling as the after effect of the world, powerless to change my human experience, to becoming the captain of my fate, the architect of my future. I took my power back for myself.

I credit this shift largely to my conscious attempt to cultivate acceptance, to approach my life with curiosity and non-judgment, and generally find happiness now–not at some distant time. I’ve learned not to keep moving the goalposts on my bliss. And I’ve learned to practice gratitude.

Since Anela joined our family three weeks ago, I’ve seen more sunsets and sunrises than I have in six months. We go on twice-daily walks. My daily step count has soared; so much so, that my smartwatch keeps sending surprised messages of congratulations (“You met your step goal, again!?”). I experience moments of bliss that I would’ve missed not long ago, consumed as I was with internal chatter.

Before my consciousness shift–before I built these self-awareness muscles–I would’ve followed Anela around the yard making sure she didn’t get too dirty, eat too many sticks, or run around too much (the fear-based helicopter-puppy-parenting technique I perfected when Kona was at that stage). I keep an eye out for serious infraction. Mostly, I try really hard to let Anela be a puppy, to accept that it’s gonna be chaotic and to enjoy the unscripted moments. I let her run, explore, sniff, eat, fall, dig, romp, play, and jump. Because she’s a puppy. That’s what they do and how they learn about their world.

I know now–truly know–my life’s imperfect and human and flawed and beautiful and messy and 100% mine. Carpet spots and chewed books and messy hair and everything. I’m happy now. I’m not waiting for anything or anyone else to bring happiness.

Odd that this acceptance, bliss, and gratitude–zen, if you will–really began to sink in after Anela joined our family.

Or, perhaps, it isn’t odd at all.

Photo Credit: Wai Siew, Unsplash.com